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The Vigil Begun

Friday, 3 April 33

The short, dark-skinned legionary strolls along the long table in the courtyard as if inspecting it. “This is everything?” he growls at the red-headed man who, though taller, is bent in a perpetual stoop. “And this,” he points to a grey pot caked with dirt and blood, “is your damning evidence of sorcery?”

“Aye, centurion. These are the Teacher and his followers’ dishes from their Passover feast last night. I had just started cleaning them when I noticed this basin.”

“A dirty dish.” The officer’s voice is flat. Muscles ripple beneath the skin of his arms like whips coiling as he adjusts his armor. Simon turns pale.

“Yes sir, but just look at the caked blood –” he stammers.

“I’m no Samaritan sorcerer like you, Simon, yet I know a Syrian devil-bowl when I see it. And that’s just a filthy washtub.” He turns and steps close to him, speaking in a low, dangerous voice. “Your job here as a spy is to find proof of magic which repulses both Romans and Jews so we can nail the Nazarene and his allies in the Sanhedrin – including your precious master Nicodemus – properly to the trees. You’re supposedly the expert on Eastern deviltry; is this the best you can do?”

“Not so loud, Pantherus, good friend. The demoness herself is near.” Simon glances over his shoulder to where Berenice huddles, anxiously scowling as she watches the rest of the squad ransack the upper floor.

“As Samaritans, we weren’t allowed near during the feast,” he explains in a low voice. “Master Nicodemus made us leave early, afraid we’d somehow defile the occasion, I suppose. So I don’t know what weird and bloody things they might have done during dinner. But my impression was that the big event would take place later at the Garden.”

“Indeed, thanks to our informant, we nabbed them there getting ready for something. But there’s no solid evidence of any crime but breaking curfew, and that big fellow, Peter, resisting arrest. Still looking for him, but we need more to stick Jesus with than that.”

“Perhaps we could test this properly,” Simon says. “The woman constantly complains of pain in her feet. Let us allow her to wash them in Jesus’ pot. If any magic power lingers, perhaps it will have an effect. Might even shut her up.”

“Well, you’re the wizard,” Pantherus says, looking at Berenice. “They say your wife is touched by demons. I’ve seen her in the marketplace. She’s certainly loud, braying like a she-ass, always going on about something or other the spirits have told her. I like her not.”

“That’s the old hag in a nutshell, I fear.” Simon sighs. “But she has been useful. Berenice may be superstitious and vain, easily swayed; but I tolerate her because I think the spirits do tell her things sometimes.”

“Perhaps they fear her sharp tongue too. Why don’t we try out her gifts, then? What of this other one?” He points to a freshly-rinsed basin of better quality next to the bucket.

“That? It belongs to Nicodemus, used for his own guests. Though Pilate may secretly disdain him, it is not wise to forget that he is a very powerful and influential member of the Sanhedrin. He will be angry if anything happens to it.”

“No need to worry. Let’s help the spirits out. Finishing cleaning that one and give them both to her to use, and see what happens.” He smiles, revealing several missing teeth. “If we don’t get proof of the Galilean’s sorcery or, if the old lady has no magic of her own, maybe you can persuade her anyway”

“A cunning test,” the Samaritan says, giving the tub a final wipe. “Either way, we win.” Taking both basins and with the centurion carrying a towel and a pitcher of water, Simon goes over to his wife.

“Oh my poor feet, oh, how they ache this morning, husband,” Berenice groans. “I can barely stand, much less climb those horrid stairs again. As we’ll have to many times once they’re through destroying the place.”

“Weren’t you going to ask the Teacher to heal you?” Simon wearily asks. He sets up the bowls at her feet, and squats. Pantherus hands him the pitcher.

“Why should I? He’s seen how greatly I suffer. Why does he not offer?”

“Maybe he’s not inclined to heal such a spiteful old nag,” Simon grumbles under his breath, “prone to the most ridiculous fancies.”

She sighs, “Actually, husband, I would. But the spirits forbade me.”

Simon frowns at this. “Let us try something, then,” he says, a little loudly. Instead of the washtub the disciples brought, he sets the other basin at her feet. “A good foot-soaking is what you need. One basin for each foot, what could be better?”

He fills the washtubs with cool water, and she puts her feet in. “Why, I can feel it,” Berenice says, wiggling her toes and splashing. “Thank you, husband. How heavenly! The sweet spirit must be pleased with me again.” She wriggles her toes, relaxing.

“Did you put some special balm in this one? It’s divine.” With a sigh, she clumsily shifts her left foot into the basin with her right foot. “What bowls are these, anyway? One belongs to Nicodemus, I think. So is not the other one the Lady Mary’s, which she lent them for the supper?”

“Could be, I suppose,” he shrugs indifferently. “I do know that when I cleaned one of them, my hands tingled. Maybe the Teacher left some potent virtue behind.” His wife looks at him narrowly, but begrudges a smile, saying, “Well, it seems you left a little for me.” Noticing the legionary staring down at her, Berenice sits bolt upright.

“It’s all right. Don’t worry about him. Now stand up, woman; I want to see if that helped.” She silently takes her feet out of the basin and stands. Her eyes get wide as she bounces happily upon her toes. “Oh Simon, I do believe the Teacher’s bowl has cured me! Praise God!”

Simon laughs. “Hah, you stupid woman, you just –” he begins. Berenice reddens and slaps him hard.

Pantherus interrupts, grabbing Simon’s wrist before he can strike back. “Many thanks, good lady, for providing the proof Pilate needs of sorcery.”

“No,” Berenice says, horrified, looking at the tub. “This cannot be!” she exclaims. “This is our Master’s! Nicodemus will beat us if you take it.”

Rubbing his cheek, Simon looks at her in surprise and laughs. “She lies, for the wicked spirit prevents her from telling the truth,” he says spitefully. “Another sign of the Teacher’s evil magic!”

“No matter,” Pantherus says, smiling. “We’ve got enough crosses for everyone, including you too, if you’re not helpful. I know your shrill voice from the bazaar, woman, uttering strange prophecies and curses at everyone. Aren’t you lame, half-crippled, always begging for help? You don’t look so weak now.”

Berenice considers her own bare feet, suddenly afraid and unsure. She lifts one foot experimentally, then the other. “Why yes, yes I am, or was, officer. Until just now. Jesus must have healed me somehow,” she says hesitantly. “It’s a sign from God that he’s no sorcerer but a truly holy man.”

“So you think he cured you with this?” the centurion points at the tub.

Simon opens his mouth to object. “No husband, you don’t need to protect the Teacher,” Berenice says. “Nor need I lie for the Lord. Just look at me.” She stamped both feet without the slightest wince.

“If magic is truly in this basin,” the short legionnaire says with a crooked grin, squatting and squinting at the bowl at his feet, “it’s beyond me. But, it’s all we’ve got so I’ll let the Jewish priests judge,” he decides. “They’ll doubtless want to see this great marvel in person, so you’re both coming with us. Men, make sure these other dishes here can never be used for sorcery again.”

Pantherus stands, scoops up the pot and tucks it under his arm. “See, I told you not to worry,” he tells a shocked Simon.

“Oh no, please, don’t!” Berenice pleads. But the soldiers flip the table over with gusto, smashing the pottery to bits upon the ground, including jugs, plates, the other basin, and all the cups in a tremendous, echoing crash.

Simon, soon to be called “the magus,” looks at the piles of shards and shakes his head. “How curious it is,” he says sadly, “that magic is found, here, in these flawed earthen vessels of our own bodies.” He taps his temple.

Pantherus laughs. They depart with the tub, dragging Berenice behind as she stumbles, wailing. She bravely sticks to her story before Pontius Pilate, who seems rather bored by it, for her testimony does not matter. The fatal fix is already in. Though his associates remain free and at large, the popular Galilean teacher and wonder-worker is already quite doomed.

On his way out to the terrace where Pilate will pronounce his terrible decision, the prefect suddenly halts and turns with a cynical smile. “Bring the vessel, Pantherus,” the balding bureaucrat commands. “Let us see if this magic washpot of hers can wipe away this ignoble stain from my hands. If it does, then anything is possible.”

And so it begins.

The world has moved on. New crises have arisen to claim anxieties, wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes, floods and other disasters fill the evening news. Thus far, there has been no deadly world pandemic from the Plague but as recent ominous events show, there are other emergent threats serving as harbingers, so vigilance must ever be kept.

Cindi Salvage changed her tune, easily passing from pop star to spiritual leader without missing a beat. She came out of the Endurist closet as Mother Cynthia, the Matrona of the reformed penitential movement. The true purpose of her whips and chains were revealed as serving a nobler purpose than fetish toys or fashion accessories of heretical significance. But she markets them around the world just the same.

With her videos and preaching, Mother Cynthia spreads a kinder and gentler Endurist gospel of redemption through suffering and clean feet across the world. Her “Weight Whippers” diet plan is globally one of the most popular. Plus, she has expanded her empire far beyond her line of cruel shoes.

Her “Perfection Bound” collection of corsets and backless gowns dominates the pre-apocalyptic fashion industry. Meanwhile, her autobiography, Love, Lashes, and Liberation: An Endurist Journey, published in 2008, spent most of the year upon the best-seller list.

Despite talk of compromise, the hoped-for reconciliation with the Catholic Church never happened. She now openly runs the worldwide “Renewed Family of Repentance and Perfection,” as high priestess of stylish suffering around the world.

But while she revived and reshaped the flagellants’ flagging faith, Mistress Cynthia faces stiff competition. The former Sister Santarovel also emerged, online at least, boldly claiming Brother Tobias’ titles. She reigns over a rival underground cult of unregenerate Endurists, uttering her own wild predictions of doom.

Cindi’s former mate had an even more bizarre career than before. Nigel’s Seekers of the Maundy Grail, his account of the search published in 2007, earned popular acclaim. But he not only highly exaggerated his own role, he spun a fantastic web of absurd claims based on the supposed dying confession of Cardinal Mortens.

Nigel alleged the prelate admitted he headed the Unknown Guardians. But that was merely the beginning. Dragging everything from extraterrestrial channeling to the Hollow Earth to a surviving transdimensional order of adept alchemists, his ever-growing yarn was widely if uncritically accepted by many fans.

The next year, his world exploded largely by his own deliberate actions. Once questions were raised about his veracity, he seized the opportunity he’d waited for to tell all. Nic Buckhorn abandoned his fake accent and pseudonym.

But Tall Tales and Cracked Pots (2009) was too brutally frank even for an autobiography. Everything, he said, had been a big prank, a joke on them to show how gullible they were.

Cardinal Mortens’ dying words, which he alone had heard, were merely a confession of faith. “There was nothing said of the Invisibles,” Buckhorn recanted. “Nothing about dimensional portals, or the Great Old Ones, either. He was looking up at the Scolding Madonna. All I heard was this: ‘So beautiful, and so unnecessary. Christ should have been enough.’ ” He then said that because of it he, too, in time became a believer.

His anguished admission caused great controversy and resentment. Although Buckhorn may have intended to set the record straight, it paradoxically made any truth in either of his tales impossible to verify.

Nic’s mocking appearance at the Nipterological Conference that year provoked its last riot. Ironically, he survived the tumult unscathed only to be struck down several days later in a pedestrian crossing in Bellegraal by a driver with too many drinks.

With him passed the childish gusto of Tubby-Con. Meetings since then have been held in the fall as rigorously dry, dull scholarly affairs, and the Summer Festival is much more sober, too.

Raimondo Fatamorgana survived being shot, but not the folly of his actions. He finally succumbed to the Plague after a long ordeal. However, his nephew Cosimo carries on the family business of unbelief, finishing the Maestro’s last book in 2011. Shattered: The Mystery of the Holy Tub Solved parroted previous accusations and added more based on recent events. To this day, Cosimo and stubborn skeptics deny any reality to the Sacred Basin, claiming it’s all a hoax.

Gus firmly established the International Grail Research Centre under the aegis of E.U.R.E.C.A. Housed in the rebuilt Templar preceptory at Beauseant, it engages in study and education. He later supervised “Operation Serene Detour,” collecting what remained of the Templar treasure from the last caches and disarming the leftover traps and hidden hazards throughout the area. The clearing was finally declared complete in 2010. Haute Maureven is now a UN World Heritage Site.

But Nic’s confession took the Professor down soon after. His second book publicly mentioned Gus’ heist from the Studiorum for the first time. Instead of ignoring the charges, Gus tried to expose the think tank. But the Studiorum Scholasticum was ready. It claimed to be a fraternal charity supporting elderly scholars and is believed by some to have quietly shipped its holdings to places unknown. The resulting mockery Gus faced was nearly as harsh as that endured by his father.

The institute forced his resignation from his directorship the next year. Shortly afterward in 2012, Gus went on expedition to South America. There, like his father and Don Yago before him, he boldly descended underground into a forbidden catacomb beneath a cathedral. But this was into a pre-Incan labyrinth in Cusco.

Unlike them, he has not yet returned. However, rumors continue to place MacLantis at various sites in South America seeking proof of the existence of giants.

Alix and her husband moved to Switzerland as planned. Anton was not reduced to waiting tables, but works for the UN, telecommuting to Geneva to help manage the world’s sacred treasures.

Allie still paints and sculpts, and is said to occasionally do private psychic readings, but is mainly engaged in raising her family, three children at latest count. Contacted for this book, she refuses to engage in any discussion of the Maundy Grail, however.

The Templar preceptory in Beauseant the knights were racing towards had been largely rebuilt even before the Maundy Grail was recovered. It seemed the natural site to keep it. The formal Compact signed in October 2005 by all stake-holders mandates that the International Grail Research Centre will permanently house the priceless relics there for continued study by scientists and scholars, guaranteeing equal access to both devotees and the merely curious.

Now clean, shiny, and thoroughly disinfected, the refurbished Inner Reliquary, iron framework, and restored Pelluvium Sanctissimum Christi are on perpetual display in the old Templar Chapel. Kept behind bullet-proof glass, they are available for viewing and veneration by the public. Much of the recovered gold and other treasures are on exhibit there, too.

Not to be outdone, the ecclesiastical authorities have their own promotions. Visions now take place naturally every full Moon with a little help from a computer-driven mirror, and are generated artificially during nightly shows for a small admittance fee.

The Church also ordered a new Ark built and a purple satin embroidered Veil just like the originals. These are present and ready for those rare occasions when the clergy is permitted to haul the holy relics out in solemn procession under heavily-armed escort.

The first one took place on Monday, 15 October 2007, the seven-hundredth anniversary of the Holy Tub’s disappearance. Similar gorgeous processions now form the main event of the Feast of the Scolding Madonna.

The Maundy Grail and associated artifacts can only be seen in person there at the Centre. They are on view every day except Mondays, official French national holidays, or when items are withdrawn for special studies or events. Be sure to check listings before setting out.

Reservations are strongly advised to allow visitors plenty of time to get through security screening. Please note that due to ongoing safety concerns and by express terms of the Compact, any and all photography of the Sacred Basin itself is absolutely prohibited. Violators will be vigorously prosecuted.

Admission is free. Donations and votive offerings are accepted.


The End
... for now

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“The grand canvas I had planned to show the Holy Tub’s departure shall prophesy its return!”

– Silviano Alfini,
Diary, 19 June 1894

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